COVID-19 – Injecting Disinfectant into Social Media

A United Nations cartoon on how to stop the spread of fake news about COVID-19Many serious issues in society that have been known but dormant, are resurfacing following the seismic after-shocks of the ‘unprecedented’ COVID-19 earthquake. Now, more than ever, the universally acknowledged truth about social media[1] as an amplifier of communications between people from across the globe, is clearly evident everywhere. The ability of social media to connect people globally with few barriers and no censorship, has meant that anybody can indelibly share anything with anybody, anywhere at the click of a button. Indeed, this ubiquitous power of social media, has been magnified during the COVID-19 lockdown.

At its best, social media has provided a life-line for many people physically isolated and alone in their own homes. It has provided reassurance, support and messages of hope and love for many.  There have been inspirational stories, such as that of Captain Moore, the WW2 veteran who raised millions of pounds for NHS charities (Guardian), which went viral and inspired other nonagenarians and centenarians from across the world to walk in their gardens for charity. Medical professionals using social media platform to share their knowledge and practices over the world to advance the understanding of Coronavirus and to find the prevention of this pandemic.

At its worst, the Pandora’s box of social media’s amplifying power has also created a lethal echo-chamber of conspiracy theories and misinformation, by enabling anybody to share their opinions and views about COVID-19 unchecked with deadly consequences. The countless corona-conspiracy theories are based on nonsensical pseudo-science, for instance, 5G networks spreading the virus, which has led to mob attacks on engineers and phone masts being set alight. The spread of misinformation, fake news, and downright false reports about the cause and cure of the virus from known and unknown sources, have been rampant leading to assaults, arson and deaths (BBC News). Whether politicians opining that ‘it would be interesting’ to see if injecting bleach could cure coronavirus or flagrantly recommending unproven cures (hydroxychloroquine), or anonymous but similarly outlandish and mythical cures of cow’s urine, pure alcohol and gargling with salt water or disinfectant are all dangerous. Worryingly, a survey found that 45% of respondents had been exposed to such misleading or incorrect health advice (Which, 2020). Although not everybody relies on social media for their news (Brandwatch.com), nearly half (42%) do, and these are more likely to believe conspiracy theories - which is a troubling.

So with much power for good or bad, there must be greater responsibility from the social media tech giants. For many years, governments in the US and EU have been grappling with the problem of formal scrutiny and regulation of these platforms. Their main response is the well-rehearsed argument that they are platform providers not content creators and so cannot be responsible for the content on their platforms. Coronavirus has broadened the spectrum of light and the questions for the platform owners are getting louder and more difficult for them to answer. But answer they must to protect individuals and the public from deadly harm.



[1] a catch-all term for the publically accessible multi-media sharing platforms

  • Image from United Nations COVID-19 Response – Unsplash.com

Written by Dr Mei-Na Liao
Head of Engagement and Business Development
Programme Director of the MSc in International Business
University of Birmingham Dubai